Werowocomoco Unearthed

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Werowocomoco Unearthed


When Robert and Lynn Ripley purchased a 300-acre farm in Gloucester County, they knew that archaeologists suspected it was once the home of Powhatan, the Indian chief who reigned when the first English settlers moved into Virginia. Researchers recently confirmed that the site is indeed the former village of Werowocomoco. Scholar Martin Gallivan of the College of William & Mary discusses the significance of the discovery.


VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


VFH Radio


August 23, 2003


Courtesy of VFH Radio



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Sarah McConnell: But first, in 1607, nearly 400 years ago now, Captain John Smith and his company established the settlement of Jamestown in the heart of the Algonquian empire, run by chief Powhatan. Powhatan governed thousands of native people and numerous tribes throughout the Tidewater region. His own village at the time the first settlers arrived was called Werowocomoco, and it was a few miles from Jamestown on the banks of another river, the York River. After a number of clashes with the settlers, Powhatan moved his people out of the area in 1609. The exact location of his former village has been a mystery for years, but Sean Tubbs reports that all changed this summer.

Bob Ripley: Lynn and I usually sit right here on the bench. Come on you'll see why—come on over here and sit down.

Tubbs: When Bob and Lynn Ripley bought 300 acres on the north shore of the York River in Gloucester County, they had heard suspicions that their property was the site of Werowocomoco, Powhatan’s seat of power. Bob Ripley describes the area as a majestic place.

Ripley: It’s so neat here because we’ve got an incredible view of the York River and this place is so beautiful. It’s about a little over two miles wide here and out to the channels about a mile and a half, and over here you can see those islands.

Tubbs: Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists from the College of William and Mary announced they have found substantial evidence that they say proves the Ripley’s property is most likely the place where Pocahontas pleaded with her father to spare the life of Captain John Smith. Bob Ripley didn’t need much convincing.

Ripley: Look at this creek, see this little creek between us and our neighbors? Well, that creek is a very shallow, very narrow creek, and John Smith says that he fell over into a narrow, little muddy creek and the Indians had to help get him out, I guarantee you, it was right there where we’re looking right now.

Tubbs: However, if you look at a map drawn in 1612 by Captain John Smith himself, you won’t find Werowocomoco in any specific location. Powhatan abandoned the village in 1609 and since then it has been a mystery where the village was. For decades nearby sites have claimed they were the original Werowocomoco, but William and Mary archaeologist Martin Gallivan leads a team that has just wrapped up a summer’s worth of digging on the Ripleys' land.

Gallivan: Well, we have evidence of Virginia Indian residents at Werowocomoco for literally thousands of years prior to the contact period, so we do know that there is a range of different Virginia Indian settlements on that location.

Tubbs: Shortly after buying that waterfront property, Lynn Ripley began finding shards of pottery and broken bottles in the dirt. After collecting thousands of specimens she and her husband showed what they found to nearby archaeologists who began conducting tests. Martin Gallivan says over 600 shovel tests of the soil indicate the Ripleys' property was definitely the site of a major community that was home to at least 200 people.

Gallivan: Each shovel test is about a foot in diameter and excavated two feet roughly from the surface. Almost all of these 600 shovel tests recovered artifacts dating to the contact period, and that would be ceramics and some stone tools.

Tubbs: With so much evidence, Gallivan says his team will be able to recreate the town’s layout by carefully examining soil patterns and artifacts. In particular, archaeologists thrive by examining areas that have been left undisturbed by plowing.

Gallivan: And that’s particularly informative to archaeologists because unplowed levels contain ethno-botanical materials, or charred plant materials, evidence of post features where houses stood, and hearths, where cooking took place, so we can really understand the life ways of a contact period village.

Tubbs: And that understanding is what interests Virginia’s Indian community. Deanna Beacham of the Nansemond Tribe is a member of the Werowocomoco Research Group.

Beacham: It’s not at all unusual for Virginia Indians to find out about archaeology after it has already been done.

Tubbs: But this time, Beacham says, Indian voices will help shape the interpretation of whatever the archaeologists learn at Werowocomoco. Members from the eight state-recognized tribes are serving on an advisory board for the project.

Beacham: There is an emphasis in the press and the general public interest on the fact that this was Powhatan’s village immediately before English contact and at the time when he first met with John Smith. But the Indian community is also interested in the fact that there was continual habitation at this site for thousands of years and that’s been documented by what we found there already in surface collections. So we’re interested in the aspect of the fact that we were here for a long time before the English came.

Tubbs: Another researcher on the project, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, says the partnership helping to uncover Werowocomoco could be a new model for cooperation between native Indians and archaeologists. But is this site really Werowocomoco? Bob Ripley recalls another archaeologist who told him it was most likely Powhatan’s village if one thing could be found.

Ripley: And he said, "And that’s copper." And I thought to myself, copper? I said, "Why copper?" He said, "That was what Powhatan used for the currency," and then I said to them, "Well they found a piece of copper yesterday," and they both looked at me and said, "You did, where?" And I said, "Well I believe it’s at that excavation right up over there underneath that tree." They asked Lynn about it and she said, "Well, if copper’s important ... and then she pulled up a whole tray out and set it down between the two of them. [Laughs] And they just flipped out.

Tubbs: William and Mary’s Martin Gallivan says he expects to find many other elements that show  this site is Werowocomoco.

Gallivan: And in fact we expect to find evidence of English materials at Werowocomoco and we found some of these already, we have found one rolled copper bead, which suggests something of the trade relations between the English colonists and the Powhatan residents.

Tubbs: That’s just one of the many surprises uncovered this year during an intensive session of archaeology. Many students from the College of William and Mary were involved in day-to-day excavations. Now that the digging is over for the summer the archaeologists and their students have carefully covered back up everything that was excavated.

Gallivan: That’s a typical strategy that archaeologists use. After we finish excavating we put the dirt back in the holes that we’ve opened up. This protects the site from erosion and is something we do every year so that the unexcavated areas adjacent to the exposed portions are protected.

Tubbs: Bob Ripley says he’s glad students are getting the chance to work on his property.

Ripley: The kids loved it and you know what? Lynn and I loved having this wonderful group of students from the College of William and Mary; they’re just bright, wonderful kids. I tell you one thing: it was a gift to Lynn and me, this summer, to have these students here.

Tubbs: For now, Werowocomoco will remain private property, but research will continue to shine a light on Virginia’s precolonial past. Bob Ripley says he wants to make sure he and his wife are proper stewards for this historical resource.

Ripley: A hundred years from now they’re gonna look back at the work that was done here and they’re gonna say it was the best archaeology, it was done exactly right.

Tubbs: For With Good Reason, I’m Sean Tubbs on the York River in Gloucester County, Virginia.




VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Werowocomoco Unearthed,” Virginia Indian Archive, accessed May 28, 2022, https://virginiaindianarchive.org/items/show/144.

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